The first time I remember being struck by a actress’ performance was while watching
when I was 8 years old. Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara leapt off my living room TV screen, a woman who could just as easily cut your face off out of spite as she could seduce you into oblivion. She was ambitious, and cunning, and sometimes heartless. But she was also fiercely loyal, and ready sacrifice for those she loved. Gone With The Wind
In the years since, I’ve come to grapple with the
many mitigating factors that make Gone With The Wind a complicated film to watch, but that memory of watching a woman drive a narrative, and rooting for her, not despite, but because of her complexity, is one that has shaped my understanding of film in a fundamental way.
And yet, it’s still an all-too rare occurrence. According to a
2017 study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion initiative, only 34 out of the 100 top films in 2016 depicted a female lead, or co-lead. Of those women, only three were from an underrepresented group, and only 8 were over 45. The study also found that out of 900 films with balanced casts boasting a total of 39,788 speaking roles, only 31.4% were women.
In that context, it’s all the more important to celebrate the characters we do have. And in a surprise twist, generally trash year 2018 has given rise to some of the most fascinating women characters in a long time, thanks to some powerful portrayals by Hollywood’s leading and supporting actresses. So, whether you’re looking to relive a great moment, or figure out what movie is worth your time, scroll through for a look at some of the best female (but also just best) performances of the year.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins’ beautiful adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 book features two of this year’s most impressive performances.
Who she plays: Tish Rivers, a young woman who’s boyfriend is falsely accused of rape.
Why she’s great: Newcomer Layne’s narration is one of the highlights of the film. She carefully gives weight to the powerful, lyrical words she’s wielding, turning text into magic. As Tish, she’s both soft and determined, a woman who has known a great love, and has to fight to keep it.
Who she plays: Sharon Rivers, Tish’s mom.
Why she’s great: King’s most searing scene is entirely silent. As a mother forced to watch her daughter suffer as a result of a devastating injustice, her eyes do the work for her. (But when she does speak, watch out.) It’s a performance that contains a multitude of emotions: great love, rage at circumstances beyond her control, poise and grace in the face of hardship and pride in her family. Give her all the awards!
Yorgos Lanthimos’ mildly surrealist period piece gives us a unique (and admirable) problem: three complex, wildly interesting and compelling female characters, all of which could technically be considered a lead. So, rather than pit them against each other, let’s celebrate them all.
Who she plays: Queen Anne of England
Why she’s so good: Colman skillfully vacillates between manic ebullience and tragic sadness. This is a character that could easily fall into caricature, but Colman gives her emotional depth that keeps us firmly in her camp throughout the film. She’s the real favorite.
Who she plays: Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Favorite #1, and trying to stay that way)
Why she’s so good: Weisz plays Sarah as a viper: alluring, dangerous, and venomously witty. But she’s also a woman who has used her intellect and skills to wield immense power in a world that does everything to deny her that right. What’s not to love?
Who she plays: Abigail Hill (Favorite #2, and ready to usurp Sarah’s spot)
Why she’s so good: Emma Stone is funny! Like, really funny! Her impeccable comedic timing is on full display as Abigail claws her way into the stratosphere of 18th century English society.
Read our review of The Favourite.
Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Who she plays: Lee Israel, a has-been celebrity biographer turned literary forger.
Why she’s so good: Lee Israel was the worst human being on the planet, but in McCarthy’s hands, she’s also the most compelling. Behind each acerbic zinger lurks a great unspoken disappointment, a wish that was never fulfilled. The makeup and wig may get her closer to looking like the 50-year-old Israel, but it’s McCarthy’s careful body language that makes her believable. You won’t want to root for her, but you will.
Read our review of Can You Ever Forgive Me?.
Read our interview with Melissa McCarthy.
Regina Hall in Support The Girls
Who she plays: Lisa, general manager of a Hooters-like establishment.
Why she’s so good: I will never not be mad at how poorly Support the Girls (now available on DVD) was marketed. From the trailer, you’d think it was some kind of raunchy comedy, with Hall as slapstick in chief. But she plays Lisa as a matriarch, in the true sense of the word. She’s motherly, and tender, but also tough and fiercely protective. And though she’s the one her employees look up to, she’s got no one to lay her own troubles on. The result is a subtle, often funny, but also bracing performance that showcases all of Hall’s strengths.
Read our review of Support The Girls.
Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times At The El Royale
Who she plays: Darlene Sweet, a singer on her way to a gig in Reno before she gets caught up in the drama at the El Royale.
Why she’s great: Aside from smashing a whiskey bottle on Jeff Bridges head? Erivo shines because she’s bold. She doesn’t retreat from her big name co-stars, but meets them head on, claiming her space, and carving out a role that’s as defined as her biceps. (It helps that her rendition of “This Old Heart Of Mine” is as absolute barn-raiser.)
Read our review of Bad Times At The El Royale here.
Listen to our interview with Cynthia Erivo here.
Amandla Stenberg in The Hate U Give
Who she plays: Starr Carter, a teenage girl who sees her friend gunned down by the police
Why she’s so good: YA heroines are tough to portray honestly, because they’re usually a collection of Defining Characteristics that convey a message to the reader. But Stenberg’s performance transcends the film’s underlying big ideas. Starr feels like a real person, a young woman grappling with dual identities, and serious trauma, but also one who laughs with her friends, flirts with boys and enjoys her family’s company. She’s multifaceted, and complex, and that makes her struggle hit squarely home.
Read our review of The Hate U Give.
Everyone is good in
Widows! Steve McQueen’s heist movie is an impressive feat of casting, with major star-power. Still, even among the very best, two names stand out.
Who she plays: Veronica Rawlings, widow of professional robber Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson).
Why she’s great: Can anyone deliver a rousing speech like Viola Davis? When she says “Because no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off,” I think I actually opened my mouth to cheer. But what makes this role special is not Veronica’s strength, but her weaknesses. Davis gives voice to the women who thought they had it all, only to realize that they have to start all over again — and come out even stronger than before.
Who she plays: Alice, who’s husband, Florek (Jon Bernthal), died along with the other robber-spouses
Why she’s great: Not many actresses can share a scene with Viola Davis and shine, but damn if Debicki doesn’t steal hers. Of all the women in the film, Alice has the most complete transformation— she starts out as a victim, prey to men’s whims and moods; but by the end, she’s carved out a place for herself as a self-sufficient woman. She makes a friend, she learns to drive, she wears a cozy knit instead of a bodycon dress that’s glued to her curves — those may seem like little things, but Debicki has made us understand that to Alice, they mean the world.
Read our review of Widows.
Want to know more about the ending? Check out our explainer.
Rosamund Pike in Private War
Who she plays: Foreign correspondent Marie Colvin
Why she’s so good: Rosamund Pike shrunk a centimeter and a half while playing the intrepid war correspondent Marie Colvin in A Private War. For Pike, it wasn’t enough to adopt Colvin’s deep rasp. She also had to contort her body to Colvin’s slight hunch, her wry expressions, her eye patch. The stakes, after all, were high: A Private War is a tribute to a singular woman and her unfathomable kind of bravery. After decades reporting on war atrocities for London’s Sunday Times, Marie Colvin perished in Homs, Syria in 2012. Pike did Colvin’s lifetime of fearlessness justice and, in the process, created a career-defining role.
Read our interview with Rosamund Pike.
Michelle Yeoh in Crazy Rich Asians
Who she plays: Eleanor Young — show some respect!
Why she’s great: The evil mom who wants to keep her child from the one he/she loves is a role that could easily be phoned in. But Yeoh lets us peek behind Eleanor’s fiercely glamorous facade, revealing a woman who’s suffered her own indignities, and is terrified of losing her son.
Read our review of Crazy Rich Asians here.
Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Kindergarten Teacher
Who she plays: Lisa Spinelli, a Staten Island kindergarten teacher who becomes obsessed with one of her toddler students.
Why she’s great: Gyllenhaal has said that she views Lisa’s actions as the consequences of “starving a brilliant woman’s mind,” and that’s how she plays her: as a woman desperate to feel special, to be heard. We’re never quite sure if Jimmy (Parker Sevak) is actually a prodigy, or if she’s pinning her own failed expectations on him, and that’s down to Gyllenhaal’s deft acting.
Read our review of The Kindergarten Teacher here.
Dominique Fishback in Night Comes On
Who she plays: Angel LaMere, a young woman hell-bent on getting revenge on her father for killing her mother
Why she’s so good: Fishback’s performances are a slow burn. You can’t quite pinpoint when it happens, but there you are, hooked. It happened with Darlene on The Deuce, and again with Angel in Jordana Spiro’s intricate directorial debut. Fishback is intense, single-minded, and focused, squeezing a tight lid on her hopes for what could have been.
Read our review of Night Comes On.
Keira Knightley in Colette
Who she plays: Early 20th century French novelist Colette Willy
Why she’s so good: Keira Knightley’s penchant for period dramas may seem amusing to some, but joke’s on them — she rules the genre. As Colette, she traces an emancipatory arc from a woman mesmerized by her husband’s charming veneer to a commanding artist in her own right. It’s a role that would always have been Knightley’s to play, but the actress feels like she’s reached a new level of confidence and maturity in her acting that matches Colette’s own journey. Plus, no one wears a chic costume like Keira Knightley.
Read our review of Colette.
Read our interview with Keira Knightley.
Carey Mulligan in Wildlife
Who she plays: Jeanette Brinson, a wife and mother struggling to find herself in 1960 Montana.
Why she’s so good: Playing a bored housewife is rarely gratifying, but Mulligan breathes new life into what has long been a stale trope. Jeanette’s not particularly likeable, but she’s mesmerizing — even her son can’t look away as she alternatively fawns over her lover, and just as quickly scorns his every action. She’s a woman with regrets, who had no options, and who suddenly finds she would really like to have some.
Read our review of Wildlife.
Read our interview with Carey Mulligan.
Watch a clip of her amazing performance.
Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born
Who she plays: Ally — the one, the only, the legend.
Why she’s so good: I mean, where to begin? The character of the eponymous star is notoriously difficult to cast. She’s got to be, well, a star, but she also has to be believable as a nobody who hasn’t made it yet. She can’t be a glorious diva from the start, but we have to know that she can be one. Gaga nails the sweet nexus spot of stardom required, giving a vulnerable and electric performance that literally sends chills down your spine.
Read our review of A Star Is Born.
Mary, Queen of Scots
The Favourite, it’s difficult to isolate a lead in Mary, Queen of Scots. As the title suggests, Mary is the main focus, but the film makes clear that her story is wholly incomplete without her cousin Queen Elizabeth.
Who she plays: Mary, Queen of Scots
Why she’s so good: The only thing most people know about Mary is how she died. But Ronan’s performance celebrates the life of a woman largely forgotten by history, giving her hopes, desires, and calm, confident poise. The actress goes through every single emotion in the film’s two-hour run time, including a close-up orgasm, and the heaving cries of childbirth.
Who she plays: Queen Elizabeth I
Why she’s so good: We’ve seen many Queen Elizabeths over the years, from Cate Blanchett to Helen Mirren. But Robbie’s version focuses on Elizabeth the woman, rather than a ruler in relation to the men around her. Robbie hones in on her character’s insecurities, which makes her regal transformation at the end even more impressive to behold.
Read our review of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Yalitza Aparicio in Roma
Who she plays: Cleo, a nanny and housekeeper working for a middle-class family in 1970s Mexico.
Why she’s so good: Aparicio had never acted before auditioning for this role, a fact that continues to boggle the mind. The depth of emotion she manages to convey with small gestures and wordless looks is what makes Cleo a character you don’t just root for, but invest in. Her heartbreaks are your own; her successes make you smile; and any indignities she’s made to suffer feel like personal attacks. One scene in particular (which I won’t spoil here) should be enough to earn her a nomination.
Read our review of Roma.
Toni Collette in Hereditary
Who she plays: Annie, a mother grappling with earth-shattering grief
Why she’s so good: Collette is eerily unsettling as Annie. Sometimes she’s blank, almost despondent; while other times she’s downright hilarious, even as she’s explaining that she once tried to light her kids on fire in her sleep. There may be supernatural forces at work behind the scenes, but the true horror is lurking within Annie herself.
Confused about the ending? Check out our explainer.
Elsie Fischer in Eighth Grade
Who she plays: Kayla, a young vlogger navigating her last week of middle school
Why she’s so good: I still have trouble believing that the opening scene Eighth Grade is scripted. Fisher’s delivery is so natural, so unforced, that it seems impossible that she wouldn’t have just spontaneously come up with it. And that’s the beauty of her performance. It feels raw, and real, and will make anyone remember the excruciating torture that is 14.
Read our review of Eighth Grade.
Read our interview with Elsie Fisher.
Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween
Who she plays: Laurie Strode — First Final Girl Turned Ultimate Final Woman
Why she’s so good: It was a role 40 years in the making. Back in 1978, Curtis was an unknown 20-year-old with zero film credits when she was cast as Laurie – a smart, likable, mild and guileless babysitter turned fierce sole survivor (a.k.a. Final Girl) against a psychopathic killer, Michael Myers in the first Halloween. It kick-started her career (as a scream queen and beyond), the slasher genre and the Halloween franchise. But it was this year’s 11th film in that series, in which Curtis reprised the role for the fifth time, that unlocked something profoundly new, raw, and real about Laurie Strode: Laurie is a survivor of unresolved trauma, whose psychic scars have warped and shrunken her emotionally and spiritually. Her rematch with her bogeyman Michael – a mythic version of the predators lurking the world over – flipped the script forever (see the record-breaking box office records, too), and this Hollywood veteran pulled off the most honest and revelatory performance of her career.
Kathryn Hahn in Private Life
Rachel, a New York City based woman faced with yet another daunting round of IVF. Who she plays:
Take it from Why she’s so good: Jonah Hill, newest member of the cult of Kathryn Hahn: “Kathryn Hahn is my favorite actress.” Same, Jonah. Same. Hahn is a chameleon, able to juggle a thousand emotions at once, and look great doing it. She’s highly relatable, but also infinitely better than any of us. Private Life gives her the space to shine. Rachel is a woman who feels betrayed by her body, and by the feminist ideology that told her she could have it all: the successful career as a playwright, a great artsy marriage in the East Village, and when she was ready, a kid. Turns out, things are a little more complicated than that, and Hahn gives every step of her emotional journey an exquisitely flawed, human face.
Read our interview with director Tamara Jenkins.
Elvire Emanuelle in First Match
Who she plays: Monique, a teenage aspiring wrestler who proves she can best the boys at their own game.
Why she’s great: Newcomer Emanuelle gives a deeply personal performance as a young woman desperate for her father’s approval, even as she realizes that their relationship might not be worth saving. It’s also a role that requires intense physicality, as she literally wrestles grown men to the ground, ensuring her place in their world.
Read our review of First Match here.
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